“I would give a leg that this were blotted out, and I could sit down with him as of yore”

[For correct and critical edition of these letters, see Mehew 6, 2090-2093.]

W.E. Henley to RLS, with a note by RLS

[Enclosed in letter 2093 to Baxter, see below]

[Baxter Letters, 1956, pp. 216-7, at www.hathitrust.org]

Merton Place, Chiswick W., 7/5/88

My dear lad,

Your letter is heart-breaking, and I do not know how to reply to it, for it convicts me (I now see) of a piece of real unkindness, unworthy of myself and our old true friendship. You may blame me in the bitterest terms you will for the cruel blunder I made in opening my mind to you, and I shall not complain, for I deserve them all. I should, I know now, have said nothing; and I shall never cease from regretting that I gave you this useless, this unnecessary pain.

W.E. Henley (1849-1903)[https://upload.wikimedia.org]

You must not believe, though, that I struck to hurt. I did not. I thought the matter one of little consequence. It seemed right that you should know how it looked to myself, and that there might well be the end of it. I was elbows deep in the business from the first, and I had (I thought) a right to make remarks. It was surely as well (I reasoned) that you should hear of certain coincidences from me as from another quarter. That I had any feeling of unfriendliness is what I want now explicitly to deny. It is your mistake, dear lad, to imagine that I’ve ever been any other than your true friend and servant. I have not; I could not. Twice before (I want you to remember) you have put this same charge upon me: each time, as you know, to my astonishment. In this case, as in the others, I can truly say the amazement is the same. How much greater the distress has been I leave you to judge.

All this, and more, I should have said long since, but I could not answer your first letter. It put me (as it were) into the dock, and I preferred to keep silence till I could speak on the old footing and in the old terms. Now I can do that, I make haste to own that I spoke without a full sense of the regard that was due to you, and that I beg your forgiveness.

W.E. Henley [https://biografieonline.it]

The good Charles was with us not long since, and our talk ran much on you. I doubt not that he has written, and told you all he could, and that you know ere this why I have not spoken and how I – we – have felt. Let me add that neither he nor you can know how grievous the estrangement has been to all of us, nor what a relief it is to us to think that it may now be at an end.

Annah Johnson Boyle, Henley’s wife (1855-1925) [www.findagrave.com]

Forgive me if I write no more. I am far from well, and there are many things for which I am perplexed. And do not doubt me again, if you can help it. Life is short enough and cruel enough, as it is; and you and I, dear Louis, should know better than to waste the good that is in it – the good that we have made for ourselves – like this.

Ever your friend,


[a note in RLS’s hand at the top of Henley’s letter, when sending it to Baxter, see below, Letter 2093:]

His original position carefully saved throughout; (1) and yet I gave him my word as to certain matters of fact; (2) and yet the letter (in consequence of this) can never be shown to my wife; (3) and yet, even if he still thinks he did, I think a kind spirit would have even lied.



Katharine de Mattos to RLS, with a note by RLS

[enclosed in letter 2093 to Baxter, see below]

[Baxter Letters, 1956, p. 227, at www.hathitrust.org]

[London, early May 1888]

That was best. I am afraid to speak or breathe. There is devilry in the air.

K. de M.

Katharine Elizabeth Alan Stevenson (1851-1939), RLS’s cousin. RLS dedicated ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ to her. In 1874 she married William Sydney de Mattos whose constant infidelities led to their separation in 1881. Katharine moved to London with her two children and supported herself by journalism. In March 1888, she and RLS quarreled after Fanny published the short story “The Nixie”. W.E. Henley accused Fanny of plagiarizing the story from Katharine’s own. RLS took his wife’s side, hurting Katharine’s feelings and alienating himself from Henley [www.cityofliterature.com]

[a note in RLS’s hand at Katharine’s letter, when sending it to Baxter, see below, Letter 2093:]

This precious scrap is all she says when I sent her, as sole answer to her former letter, the information that I should never tell Fanny of it, and enclosed a message from Fanny – I now forget its terms – to the effect that letters might be misunderstood and we must not judge K. in the meantime. If there is not even thanks, I must explain it to myself as hopeless. Poor woman, she has put her foot in it deep, but this stubborn pride in wrong-doing can lead only to greater misery in the end. I do not envy her night thoughts!

Fanny Stevenson (1840-1914) [www.elespanol.com]

To Katharine de Mattos

[enclosed in letter 2093 to Baxter, see below]

[Baxter Letters, 1956, pp. 227-8, at www.hathitrust.org]

Dear Katharine,

You say ‘that was best’. I thought it best for you. But is that all you have to say? Have you no thanks to make me for an act which I own I thought generous? I suppressed a letter which deeply affected my wife’s character from the person most concerned;

Fanny Stevenson, by J. Singer Sargent, 1885 [https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com]

a letter which, if I know anything of life, there is no other human being but myself who would have even tried to pardon; a letter of which (permit me to remind you) you were so much ashamed that you followed it up with two vague notes of apology and deprecation. Up to this moment you have never had one word of reproach from me. Henley came to see you, that which I myself so vividly remember. By so doing you might have saved me a friendship of which I have great need; and you would have saved yourself, when your better nature speaks, cruel reproaches.

W.E. Henley [www.104orizzontale.com]

But it would have been better still if you had found it in your generosity to respond to my wife’s message, which I was surprised to receive from her, which I was rejoiced to send on to you, and which I am now cast down to find has elicited no answer in your heart.

Fanny Stevenson in 1877 [http://thedynamiter.llc.ed.ac.uk]

So much I will say; for I find that my silence is misconstrued, and it is necessary to be frank. I know, and you know, how you have used my wife. I know, and you know, how when this matter came up you failed me with Henley. I know, and you know, how you wrote in answer. I know, and you know, how, as soon as you had sent the letter off, your heart misgave you. I know, and you know, how I have sought to spare you till today. I now remind you nakedly of the truth. I do not know how to say what I wish to say. There is always a door open: it is never too late to say, I have sinned – if not for others, at least for oneself. God knows my heart is heavy enough with my own offences to make me sicken at the thought of seeming harsh. But I counsel you, if you wish peace of mind, to do the right thing, and do it now.

Your old friend and cousin,

Robert Louis Stevenson

To Charles Baxter

[Baxter Letters, 1956, pp. 223-227, at www.hathitrust.org]

[Envelope marked ‘Private’]

[Manasquan, 21 May 1888]

My dear,

I have had a sore mail. You were right; and Henley should not have written. I send you his letter, and I must ask you somehow or other to get me out of the task of answering it.

W.E. Henley [http://broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk]

I will say frankly this tread of the elephant’s foot is too heavy for me.

You will observe that my delicacy in never referring to my wife’s miserable position is constructed (I must suppose) as a tacit condemnation; that to me, a married man, he writes a letter of reconciliation which I could never dare to show my wife! I have been even using my wife ill, by my treatment of this matter, but this passes the measure.

Frances (Fanny) Matilda Van de Grift Osbourne, at the time of her marriage with RLS, 1880 [http://myoncell.mobi]

Henley and Katharine may make their peace with her if they are able.

Portrait of W.E. Henley, by A. Rodin, 1884-1886 [www.victorianweb.org]

I am weary of trying to think and plan, and suppress letters, for their sake; not one thought do they give to me. And you must try to explain to him that for his sake and mine, I must simply not be supposed to have received the enclosed specimen of correspondence. Explain to him also, if you are able, that when a man in a matter of this description does not swell on his wife’s feelings, the suppression does not imply that she his dead.

RLS with his mother, wife and step-daughter at their temporary residence, Darlinghurst, Sidney, January 1893 [https://dictionaryofsydney.org]

But I feel he will never understand.

O, I go on my journey with a bitter heart. It will be best for all, I daresay, if the Casco goes down with me. For there’s devilish little left to live for.

Schooner Casco, Dr Merritt’s yacht, took RLS and his family and started west from San Francisco, 15 June 1888. When RLS decided to remain in the South Seas, Dr. Merritt sold the Casco. Next the yacht played the part of an opium smuggler in Hawaiian and Oriental waters [https://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca]

And don’t think me ungrateful, my dear; God bless you, for your kindness and your wisdom. And would God I had had your letter before I wrote. For this wooden incapacity to understand any feeling that can inspire one word of my correspondence or one act of my life is the severest blow of all.

By the same mail I had a pencil note from Katharine, also enclosed, along with my answer. I do not know whether it is that I am “weary of well-doing”. I think not. I think I perceive that I injure these people by treating them with too great delicacy, which they misconstrue – and what drives me wild, miscontrue to the disadvantage of my wife.

O, Henley’s letter! I cannot rise from it. What does the man think? Has he never met a human being on his way through life? – Well, well, here I am writing all night again, with all my reams of work in hand, and within 9 days of leaving for San Francisco.

Market Street, San Francisco, c. 1888 [https://i.pinimg.com]

This business has been my headstone;

Headstone, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh [https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com]

I will never be reconciled to life. O, I speak wildly – but it will never be the same to me. Katharine has behaved in a manner that I shall leave herself to qualify if she please; Henley, poor devil, seems unable to understand a single impulse of my heart or a single necessity of my position; he seems also quite unable to believe my plain word.

W.E. Henley [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Well, I mean to beat the wind. I will have a good time on the Casco.  It means a hard heart; well, harden it, O Lord! and let’s be done.

The schooner Casco [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

Lord, man! I can’t help loving him either. I would give a leg that this were blotted out, and I could sit down with him as of yore.

The Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, 19th century. At the age of 12, Henley was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the bone. That led to the removal of the part below the knee of his left leg. A few years after that, tuberculosis spread his other leg as well. Luckily, under the guidance of Dr. Joseph Lister of the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, and his innovative techniques of surgery, there became no need for the removal of his leg. During his long stays at the hospital, writing poems about his traumatic experiences, Henley met RLS [http://victorian-era.org/images/royal-infirmary-edinburgh-628×500.jpg]

Does he suppose my wife enjoyed this business? God, what a want – what a corpse-like want of thought for others this displays! Don’t you see me going to my wife and showing her this letter, and – read it!


Truly, I have found in myself wonderful things, but I believe in my widest flights of unconcern for my neighbours, I never flew one-third of this. But the affair is back in your hand. The trouble is, dear Charles, and this I feel wretched about: they will have to put off Rodin to next year.

François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840-1917). In Feb 1888 RLS had promised Henley to write an article on the French sculptor for the Art Journal [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

I lost more than a month over this business. I had this chance of a schooner, which I thought I might enjoy – and I mean to, if the devil’s in it – and which might do me good;

The schooner Casco [https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca]

and I am in dreadful arrears. I have still two articles which must be done in eight days, a feat I know not how to accomplish:

RLS’s penultimate essay for Scribner’s Magazine, “The Education of an Engineer”, was to be published for November 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]
RLS’s last essay for Scribner’s Magazine, “A Christmas Sermon”, was to be published for December 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

and in short – the Rodin must go over to next year. For I cannot do it on board.

A. Rodin, Bust of V. Hugo, 1883 [www.musee-rodin.fr]
A. Rodin, Bust of J.P Laurens, 1882 [www.augustins.org]
A. Rodin, Eve, 1881 [www.musee-rodin.fr]

Next day [22 May 1888]: the horrible part here begins.

Of other business – I have the pretty complete certainty that the £2,000 will carry me well through my seven months. What you have in hand, and what we may hope you shall receive in the interim from publishers, Skerryvore etc.,

Skerryvore Cottage, RLS’s house in Bournemouth, had been rented since he had left [www.awesomestories.com]

may thus collect, and should amount to something ere my return. If I come back in any health I should make another £300 in six months by finishing my novel, The Master of Ballantrae.

The Master of Ballantrae was to be published in 1889.

Pretty soon after, Lloyd and I should have one of our ships at the harbour mouth.

Lloyd’s story, first called ‘The Finsbury Tontine’, then ‘A Game of Bluff’, finally became ‘The Wrong Box’ and was published next year, 1889.

And they should go far to keep us for the year, so that (what I am particularly anxious to manage) the Casco letters may go towards repayment of the capital now borrowed.

RLS had agreed with S. S. McClure to sell him “letters” from the South Seas to be syndicated in newspapers and magazines. These he hoped to use for materials for the “big book” on the Pacific. The volume was published as ‘In the South Seas’, edited by Sidney Colvin and published after RLS’s death in 1896.

I shall think it unlucky if I cannot get from 10 to 15 hundred out of them, and this should go (or a great part of it should) toward the hole made in capital. I now find myself in debt to my heirs, for I scarce think myself entitled to decrease the little stock.

But now there remains the question of buying the deferred annuity for Katharine’s child. I do not think this quarrel should be allowed to interfere with that design, which seems to me highly desirable. At the same time I mean the expense to fall on Katharine’s share of what I have left to her. I wish you would inquire into the thing. After this letter of mine, it is unlikely we shall have further correspondence; nor unless she chooses to own the truth, do I much desire it. So if you find, at the child’s present age, the thing to be possible and not too expensive, you had better just manage it for me personally, and send me a little codicil by which I can reduce Katharine’s share in a proportion. I think, considering all things, it could scarce seem mean if I added the amount to Lloyd’s? He at least is a comfort to me;

Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947), RLS’s stepson [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

and in all this trouble, he and yourself are my only stand-by’s. My wife feels the thing too bitterly to be much help – she had a very strong affection for Katharine;

Lloyd, Fanny and RLS at Saranac Lake, early winter 1887 [https://localwiki.org]

and I have to steer my own course often much against her will, though of course as she is in S.F.

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, c. 1888 [https://farm4.staticflickr.com]

I am playing off my own bat. Lloyd approves of the letter to Katharine; we both feel it is impossible I should continue to appear to accept this unfair usage of my wife, and that I have done as much in the way of hanging off, and giving Katharine a chance to do the right thing spontaneously, as the oldest friend has any right to ask. It is just possible this business will delay my sailing! At least today work is once more impossible.

As to Henley’s letter, then, you will try to explain to him, as kindly as you can, what it appears to me are its defects, and how from the nature of these defects, it is better I should not be supposed to have received it. I cannot describe with what disappointment I read it, but upon this you will not dwell. My plan, in not receiving it, and not answering it, is to keep the door open for the return of friendship. I could not write to him myself, and point out to him the position in which he leaves me as to my wife, because I am too proud to do so, and because if I tried I should but open the wound. I lay the burthen, then, upon your shoulders, and should I receive any letters from W.E.H. before I have heard from you, I shall act upon your original proposal and send them to you unopened.

He says he was “in the business from the first.” He was in it enough to have known a little more, as I reminded him, were he not under an influence which I fear is (just now at least) an evil one. But it is true: I know how easy he is to lead.

Mrs Henley’s grave, St. John the Baptist Churchyard, Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire [https://images.findagrave.com]

You will hear from me again ere I sail, my dear Charles – I trust in better spirits.

The schooner Casco [https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca]

I cannot say I think I act harshly. I am trying to do the best for all. The Lord knows there is in my soul this morning no hatred and no anger; a very weary disappointment, a dread of the future, and a doubt of all – that is my sentiment. With my voyage in front of me – the dream of a life realised – I must still say, Would God I had died at Hyères!


I have never been well enough since then to enjoy life as I once did; I have had a considerable success, which is a disappointing circumstance in life, believe me; and – well, now, I feel as if I were moving among bladders.

Richard Lindon, believed to have invented the first footballs with rubber bladders, holding the new “buttonless” balls. made from pig bladders, 1880 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

For either I am a very unjust judge, or I am being hardly used by those whom I loved and tried to serve.

Your kindness, your countenance, and the affection you show to me, my dear, has been of the most incalculable support, and I thank you again and again, and am – O, I hope – Ever yours,

R.L. Stevenson

Because I say nothing of my wife’s position and my wife’s feelings, you at least will not misunderstand me. There are things of which a man cannot write, but dear God, that he must feel.

Fanny Stevenson [www.ourpacificocean.com]

And think of my wooden Henley! I shall never get an answer to this before I am on the sea – if all goes well. Better address to Scribner’s, and I shall hear at our first escale.


To my wife, I shall (God forgive me) pretend that your plan has held all the time, and that I have not communicated with Henley. So here you see I am still tricking and lying for him, and he cannot think once of my position. It is indeed disheartening. Words cannot describe my wearyness of life. And it seems it would have been so easy for Henley to have made his letter presentable! Lloyd is in a great state of doubt too: hating to go to sea without a friendly hail! to Henley, and yet not knowing how or whether.

Lloyd Osbourne [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Some of the first of this letter, being the usual steam escape, I have deleted in a cooler moment.


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